Friday, March 26, 2010

Snow falling on grapevines

I just got back from a lovely trip to France --- part business, part pleasure --- and I have a bone to pick with the weather. It's not as if I haven't seen enough snow this year; Philadelphia got a record-breaking 78.7 inches of snow during the winter of 2009-2010, which, in case you're wondering, is enough to bury me entirely with over 18 inches to spare. So I figured, for spring break, I'd go somewhere warm and springlike. Somewhere I could see the flowers blooming and hear the birds singing. Somewhere like the south of France. Provence, to be precise, land of lavender and rosé and all manner of sunny Mediterranean influences.

Yeah, right.
That's a picture of the Rhône valley, just outside of the famous region of Chateauneuf-de-Pape, showing all of the grapevines covered in snow. No lavender, no rosé, and certainly nothing resembling a Mediterranean climate. Brr. Ugh.

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit.

Michael and I stayed at La Burlière, which is located a little outside of the tiny village of Gordes, which is near the extra-tiny village of Les Imberts, which is about 40 minutes east of Avignon:

We rented a car, and the plan was just to drive around and see the sights, visit the villages perchés ("perched villages," built into the sides of the hills), shop at the open-air markets, and drink lots of wine. Generally, that's what we did, although I caught a terrible cold on the second day that severely curtailed the viticultural portion of the program. The driving part was definitely the right idea, despite the very steep and windy roads and insane French drivers in their little Peugeots. Each day, we picked a destination that looked like it might be interesting and went there, stopping along the way as the fancy took us.

The first day lulled us into a false sense of security, being sunny, although not particularly warm. We started off in Apt, where there was a large and very active market. We bought various lunch accoutrements, including bread, marinated olives, fresh goat's cheese, and roasted almonds. Then we took a long driving tour of the villages in the area:

On a hill in Saignon, overlooking the Rhône-Alpes:

Now that's what I call a picnic spot.

The ochre cliffs at Rousillon:

The village of Gordes, built into the side of a hill:

Sunset over the Rhône river, as seen from Saint-Jacques:

We picked up a baguette in Gordes in the late afternoon, and we ate that for dinner in the hotel room, along with our lunch leftovers and a lovely bottle of Côtes de Luberon that we ordered from the hotel:

The next day was cold and rainy, warning of things to come. We started off at another market, this time in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue:

Then we drove south to Marseille. From the hill of Notre Dame de la Garde, we had a beautiful view of the city and the harbor:

We'd gotten to Marseille too late to have a proper lunch, so we just grabbed a fruit smoothie and figured that we'd be able to find a nice hearty dinner in Aix-en-Provence on the way back. But no --- Aix was completely dead by the time we got there, starving, around six-thirty. I'd expected that of some of the smaller villages, especially on non-market days, but Aix is a good-sized city. We finally found a likely looking Italian restaurant near the center of town, and it looked from the outside like it was open for business; there were a number of people seated at tables near the front windows. But when we went in and asked for a table, we realized that they were the waitstaff, hanging out in the front bar area, waiting for service to start. A waiter showed us to a table, and then promptly ignored us in favor of returning to the bar area to watch the rest of the football match. We were the only ones in the place, and couldn't so much as catch someone's eye to get a glass of water or even a menu. Then a second couple came in, and I heard the waiter say to them that they wouldn't be serving until seven o'clock. It was then about six-forty. Why hadn't he seen fit to tell us that when he seated us? And what the heck were we supposed to do for twenty minutes, other than chafe impatiently? But the straw that broke the camel's back was when the waiter wandered into the dining area, completely ignoring our inquiring looks, got himself another beer, and went back to watching TV.

We walked out. I have never walked out of a restaurant before, but I think it was a legitimate response to the situation. I should also mention that I've never experienced that kind of completely cold and unhelpful service before in France. Most Americans have this horrible view of the French as being snotty and rude, which I had never found to be true, but I guess the stereotype comes from somewhere.

Unfortunately, our backup plan for dinner was a pizza and pasta place on a back alley a little further from the center of town, since we were running out of options and extremely hungry at this point. The food was edible, but that was about its only redeeming characteristic. Aix, I will not miss you.

It started snowing on the way back to the hotel, and the farther north we drove, the deeper it got. The French drivers, who just hours before had been content to play chicken with us at egregiously fast speeds on winding mountain roads with no guard rails, were now completely panicked and driving at a bare crawl, despite the fact that the highway was flat and actually had been plowed once. Maybe there's no setting between "daredevil" and "old lady"? We made better progress on the side streets, which had not been plowed, but which at least were clear enough of other cars that we could drive at a respectable speed.

By morning, there were six inches or so on the ground --- definitely not what I'd expected for our spring vacation! And while our bed and breakfast did look particularly picturesque when covered in snow...

...they weren't really outfitted for winter tourism. By which I mean that the room wasn't heated properly despite being exposed on three sides, and the floors were all tile with no rugs. Ohh, my poor frigid feet! Also, what is up with European showers not having any doors or curtains? I need that steam!

Well, at least there were dogs:

That's Michael playing with Lupine, an elderly German shepherd.

And, in all fairness, there was also a wonderful table d'hote. We ate there on the first night, after a very long travel day, and it was wonderful. We had a green salad with mustard vinaigrette and chopped nuts for the first course, followed by an omelette with tomatoes and herbs with a side of roasted zucchini. Then there was a cheese plate (Beaufort and Tomme de Savoie), and, finally, dessert: individual warm chocolate cakes with wild blueberries and fresh cream. Their breakfasts were equally wonderful: fresh bread and brioches served with a dizzying variety of homemade jams (fig, plum, strawberry, cherry), plus juice, coffee, and tea. I definitely recommended it for your next trip to Provence, although I would also recommend going in the summer.

Between my fever and chills and the freezing temperatures and the fact that we hadn't really packed for this kind of climate, it wasn't shaping up to be much of a vacation. But I gamely piled on all the clothes that I could and we headed off for Chateauneuf de Pape.

We had a good lunch at a crowded and homey bistro in Chateauneuf itself, and spent the next few hours driving through the Rhône valley, wondering what effect the late snow might have on the grape harvest. In the afternoon, we pulled into Orange, and soaked up a bit of the struggling afternoon sun on an audio tour of the Roman theater there:

Dinner was at a little Japanese restaurant back in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (pretty much everything else was closed), and then we straggled back to the hotel to pack up.

We spent the rest of the trip in Paris, giving talks at the Sorbonne and being very well looked-after by our French hosts, who provided a two-hour, three-course lunch (!) with wine (!!) for both days of the conference. I seriously need to get invited to more of these things. I mean, they said that lunch would be included, but I expected that to mean the kind of boxed sandwich lunch that we'd get in the U.S., with a mealy apple and maybe a bag of chips if you're lucky. We were not quite as well looked-after by our hotel, where there were power outages of varying lengths every night of our stay. Well, at least there was carpeting.